'Ghosts' Character Analysis of Mrs. Helene Alving

Oswald's Mother From Henrik Ibsen's Family Drama

Hedvig Winterhjelm and August Lindberg in Ibsen's play Ghosts
Hedvig Winterhjelm as Mrs. Alving and August Lindberg as Osvald in the 1883 Swedish performance.

Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Henrik Ibsen's play Ghosts is a three-act drama about a widowed mother and her "prodigal son," who has returned to his dreary Norwegian home. The play was written in 1881, and the characters and setting reflect this era.

The Basics

The play focuses on the unraveling of family secrets. Specifically, Mrs. Alving has been hiding the truth about her late husband's corrupt character. When he was alive, Captain Alving enjoyed a benevolent reputation. But in reality, he was a drunkard and an adulterer—facts that Mrs. Alving kept hidden from the community as well as her adult son, Oswald.

A Dutiful Mother

Above all things, Mrs. Helene Alving wants happiness for her son. Whether or not she has been a good mother depends upon the reader's point of view. Here are some of her life events before the play begins:

  • Tired of the Captain's drunkenness, Mrs. Alving temporarily left her husband.
  • She hoped to be romantically embraced by the town's local priest, Pastor Manders.
  • Pastor Manders did not reciprocate her feelings; he sends Mrs. Alving back to her husband.
  • When Oswald was young, Mrs. Alving sent her son to boarding school, shielding him from the true nature of his father.

In addition to the above events, it can also be said that Mrs. Alving spoils Oswald. She praises his artistic talent, gives in to his desire for alcohol, and sides with her son's bohemian ideologies. During the play's last scene, Oswald (in a state of delirium brought on by his illness) asks his mother for the "sun," a childhood request which Mrs. Alving had somehow hoped to fulfill (by bringing happiness and sunshine into his world instead of despair).

In the final moments of the play, Oswald is in a vegetative state. Although he has asked his mother to deliver a fatal dose of morphine pills, it is uncertain whether Mrs. Alving will adhere to her promise. The curtain falls while she is paralyzed with fear, grief, and indecision.

Mrs. Alving's Beliefs

Like Oswald, she believes that many of society's church-driven expectations are counterproductive to achieving happiness. For example, when she discovers that her son has a romantic interest in his half-sister, Regina, Mrs. Alving wishes she had the courage to allow the relationship. And let's not forget, in her younger days, desired to have an affair with a member of the clergy. Many of her tendencies are highly unorthodox—even by today's standards.

It is important to note, however, that Mrs. Alving did not follow through on either impulse. In Act Three, she tells her son the truth about Regina—thus preventing a potentially incestuous relationship. Her awkward friendship with Pastor Manders reveals that Mrs. Alving not only accepted his rejection; she also does her best to live up to society's expectations by continuing the facade that her feelings are purely platonic. When she tells the pastor: "I should like to kiss you," this could be seen as a harmless quip or (perhaps more likely) a sign that her passionate feelings still smolder beneath her proper exterior.

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Bradford, Wade. "'Ghosts' Character Analysis of Mrs. Helene Alving." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/ghosts-character-analysis-mrs-helene-alving-2713469. Bradford, Wade. (2020, August 27). 'Ghosts' Character Analysis of Mrs. Helene Alving. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/ghosts-character-analysis-mrs-helene-alving-2713469 Bradford, Wade. "'Ghosts' Character Analysis of Mrs. Helene Alving." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/ghosts-character-analysis-mrs-helene-alving-2713469 (accessed May 29, 2023).